Lately I've been thinking and posting a bit about fabbers (also called 3D printers), primarily on my nanotechnology blog. I think the topic (and my growing interest in it) is rich enough to deserve its own blog. I am particularly interested in affordable hobbyist fabber projects, something I might be able to fool around with myself.
The fabber idea is pretty simple. Take a hot glue gun and three stepper motors. Use the stepper motors under computer control (with appropriate mechanics) to position the hot glue gun at a specific XYZ point, and deposit a drop of hot glue. The glue cools and you move to the next XYZ point. Use this arrangement to draw a glue pattern on a horizontal surface, then move up a little bit and draw the next layer, and then the next. Soon you've got a 3D object of almost any shape you wish. A few of the details can vary -- it's not really glue, it's typically a polymer like polylactic acid -- but that's the basic idea.
There are professional and industrial fabbers with prices starting at about $50,000. But more interestingly, there are hobbyist projects to build much more affordable fabbers. The two currently prominent hobbyist efforts are the RepRap project (wikipedia entry) started by Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in the UK and the Fab@Home project started by Hod Lipson at Cornell. There are others but these two have the highest visibility and, as far as I can tell, the largest numbers of participants.
The Fab@Home fabber looks more polished than the RepRap, but I find the RepRap more interesting. Partly because it's more affordable (a getting-starting price somewhere around $400 versus $2300) but also because Bowyer is more committed to an open-source approach and is more interested in the implications of that approach. He very intentionally designed a machine that could fabricate most of its own parts and could therefore mostly copy itself. If the machine becomes popular, its price will quickly drop (building one today might cost a good deal more than $400 and a very large investment of tinkering time) to roughly the price of the few non-copyable parts and the raw plastic for the rest.